The Bend of Power

How the U.S. military can overcome the challenges of complexity in a rapidly changing world.


When my father was drafted into the Army during World War II, the challenges were immense, but the military end states were clear. Germany had invaded its neighbors and Japan had attacked the United States. Diplomacy and sanctions had failed. Force was the only option left. Together with our allies, the U.S. armed forces did what militaries have done for generations: used lethal force to compel an enemy to surrender.

After 1945, the U.S. military became smaller, but the burdens of global leadership caused our obligations to grow. We increased our capabilities and reorganized our national-security apparatus to contain the communist powers. The United States led the way in replacing the old system of European colonies with a more stable order of shared norms, multilateral institutions, and interdependent markets.

This new order did not sustain itself on its own. It required constant care, attention, and defense, much of which was done by the U.S. military. In its new role as guarantor of the international order, the U.S. armed forces became the hard-power foundation of global security — which protected and promoted our interests, our friends, and the norms that bound us together. 

In the past half-century, we’ve enjoyed some notable successes. Our European partners grew into a strong and capable alliance and many former colonies evolved into stable, democratic states. East Asia embraced free markets and emerged more prosperous than ever before. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. The values we fought for in World War II and the Cold War began to coalesce into widely shared norms.

But a new century brought new dangers. In each region of the world, we face serious — but very different — security challenges, from rising state-to-state tensions in Asia and Europe to escalating sub-state violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, technologies and capabilities once confined to states are moving beyond their control. The result is an international order under duress with as many things working to pull the world apart as to pull it together.

Just like after 1945, we now confront a situation in which the U.S. military is shrinking as calls for our leadership around the globe are expanding. With the opportunity cost of each of our actions increasing, we must be judicious in the application of military force and seize innovative ways to use it to best effect.

The U.S. military is up to this challenge. We are becoming more agile in how we manage our forces, employing our assets around the globe in dynamic and purposeful ways. We are updating our efforts to build the capacity of our partners, emphasizing regional and multilateral approaches. We are better integrating military efforts with those of the other instruments of national power, including diplomacy and economics. Ultimately, the United States must continue to underwrite the international order.

Shifting Power

The scholar and former Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím argues in The End of Power that technology and demographics are changing the ways people interact and compete around the world. I agree. Traditional power structures are losing their monopolies on authority in many areas of human affairs. In politics, disparate protest movements are challenging governments by coordinating their efforts over the Internet and through social media. In business, blue-chip corporations are losing ground to start-ups, hedge funds, and independent innovators. Everywhere, individuals have more access to power than ever before — large hierarchical organizations are losing out to newer, better-networked actors.

Some aspects of this diffusion of power are certainly good. But in the realm of security, it raises serious concerns. There are some tools that only responsible governments should possess — no one wants a world in which rogue regimes and nonstate actors field nuclear weapons, for example. There are also some tools that only responsible governments do possess; when major crises occur, whether natural or man-made, it is only these states that have the infrastructure and resources to respond effectively. In short, more participation and more competition are not necessarily desirable in the security realm. Strong states and institutions bring stability. Weak ones breed confrontation and chaos.

It would be difficult enough if all we had to grapple with was what Naím calls the "decay of power." But the way power relationships are changing varies greatly from region to region across the globe.

In Asia, states are rapidly expanding their militaries while territorial disputes heighten the risk of miscalculation. The U.S. security umbrella and decades of diplomatic and military efforts have helped facilitate Asia’s historic rise, but renewed rivalries threaten to reverse the region’s progress. Traditional power-on-power relationships will shape Asia’s future and ultimately determine whether it becomes the economic engine of the 21st century or a zone of interstate conflict.

In the Middle East and North Africa, centuries-old religious, ethnic, and tribal tensions challenge state authority and fuel violence. As the region wobbles along a fault line extending from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad, there are no easy solutions for steadying it. In this environment, the traditional use of military power rarely yields expected results.

In Europe, threats from Russia on the eastern flank and extremist groups on the southern flank are growing as countries trend toward parochialism at home. Russia’s activities in Ukraine are giving the world a disturbing image of the hybrid nature of military aggression in the 21st century. Europe is approaching an inflection point at which decisions to favor narrow interests or greater unity will transform the region.

Even in our own hemisphere, organized criminal networks to our south pose a looming security threat close to home.

The United States — and those partners with whom we share common values — confronts a dizzying assortment of challenges. There’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution. But there are some common best practices that we should follow. First, wherever possible, we should view problems through a regional lens — not one country, one group, and one crisis at a time. Second, we should carefully integrate all our instruments of power, making sure that our policies leverage each instrument to its best use.

Played out in real time in the media, the myriad challenges we face can be paralyzing — unless we have a set of guideposts against which to measure our choices and their consequences.

Historians have argued since the dawn of the written word about whether it is possible for a nation to craft grand strategy. Some suggest that grand strategy is too difficult — that the grand strategies of the past were only discernible in hindsight, not the result of careful forethought and planning.

Despite cynics’ arguments that grand strategy is a thing of the past, it is critical today — when calls for U.S. leadership and military power shift from crisis to crisis. We need a well-articulated grand strategy that clearly prioritizes what is most important — one that leverages traditional and new regional partnerships and fully integrates all of the instruments of national power.

Striking the Right Balance

To deal with our most pressing security challenges, the U.S. military will not be the only tool we use, nor should it be the principal one in most circumstances. Often the military is best used in a supporting role — especially if we want to achieve meaningful and enduring results. And we should "go it alone" only in the rarest of circumstances.

The problems of the Middle East, for example, require much more than hard power. Our experiences there have demonstrated that good governance, economic development, and strong and equitable institutions are prerequisites for sustainable peace. The challenges confronting the Middle East will take a generation or more to resolve, and the people and leaders of the region must lead the way. In such circumstances, patience and perseverance will be necessary — the changes will not come overnight.

Most problems around the world today do not have quick military fixes. The key is to be selective in how we use military power and to combine it more effectively with diplomatic and economic levers. In the rough-and-tumble world of international politics, force and diplomacy must work hand in hand — it is the credible threat of violence that gives nonviolent alternatives their strongest appeal. The same is true of economic levers: Sanctions, for example, are most effective when coordinated with other lines of effort. These tools do not operate independently; their full potential is realized through integration.

Over the past 13 years, the U.S. military has rightly revamped our practices to confront the challenges we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as we look ahead to the emerging security environment, it is time for us to bring our military instrument of power back into balance.

As the U.S. military rebalances, our first consideration is our most traditional role — the direct application of force in defense of the nation and its interests. America’s armed forces keep the United States immune from coercion. This is our foremost charge and it will always be the primary driver of how we structure, train, and equip the force.

To this end, the U.S. military is adapting the way we distribute the force and manage readiness — a process we call Global Force Management — to become more predictable for our allies and more confusing to our potential adversaries. We are adjusting our processes so that we can aggregate and disaggregate forces rapidly to shape, deter, and, if necessary, strike. Our force will be smaller, so it must be more agile, more lethal, and postured to project power wherever needed.

Of course, agility has its limits. The size of the military matters. Our nation’s elected leaders must ensure the armed forces have the resources they need to protect and promote the nation’s security interests.  

The emerging security environment also demands that we update our approach to building partner capacity. Armored divisions and bomber wings can blunt our enemies, but they cannot single-handedly preserve the peace. To do that, we need to construct stronger security partnerships with like-minded nations, so that all can contribute to the collective defense.

Building partner capacity has long been a hallmark of America’s defense policy. It begins with small-scale efforts: student exchanges, technical training, and conferences. With more established partners, capacity building includes attendance at U.S. service academies and war colleges, multilateral exercises, and foreign military sales. All of these things make our partners more effective and improve our collective ability to respond to real-world crises. They also help build professional military forces that respect civilian control and the rule of law. They yield the benefits of security while sharing the burdens of providing it.

We will continue to focus on building partner capacity, but we must reform our approach to account for the realities of the current security environment. We need to move beyond bilateral capacity building and adopt regional and multilateral approaches. Regional players almost always understand their neighborhood’s security challenges better than we do. To make capacity building more effective, we must leverage these countries’ unique skills and knowledge to our collective advantage. At the same time, an important lesson of our recent wars is that successful capacity building requires time — often decades — and credible partners.

Committing to Leadership

The U.S. military today is one of the most flexible and adaptable tools in America’s toolbox. We shape behavior simply by our presence. We strengthen our friends’ capabilities in peacetime and enable their operations in combat. We protect the sea-lanes that facilitate global commerce. We defend the norms and institutions that make up the international order.

Our responsibility now is to sharpen that tool and deploy it more effectively — in a world in which the international order is strained but still intact.

After World War II, the United States accounted for half of global GDP and stood at the apex of its power. Instead of leveraging this power to serve narrow national interests, we helped rebuild the world and laid the foundations of the international order we all enjoy today.

Everyone has a stake in keeping this system functioning. We must continue to lead — and that requires an agile, modern, and smartly postured force. We cannot continue to put off much-needed maintenance and modernization.

The security environment today is more complex than it has been at any other time in my 40-year Army career. But the U.S. military remains as committed as ever to underwriting peace and stability around the world. We will not shrink from the challenges of complexity. We will adapt ourselves to overcome them.

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